A new crew is heading for the International Space Station (ISS), with Soyuz MS-02 having launched from the infrequently-used Site 31 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 2:05 p.m. local time (4:05 a.m. EDT) Wednesday, 19 October. Russian cosmonauts Sergei Ryzhikov and Andrei Borisenko, together with NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough, will follow a longer-than-standard rendezvous profile and are presently slated to dock at the space-facing (or “zenith”) Poisk module of the International Space Station (ISS) on Friday morning. Initially forming the second half of Expedition 49, led by Russian cosmonaut Anatoli Ivanishin, the crew will rotate into the core of Expedition 50, under Kimbrough’s command, from late October.
As outlined in AmericaSpace’s Soyuz MS-02 preview article, Ryzhikov, Borisenko, and Kimbrough’s launch has been a long time coming. Originally scheduled to fly on 23/24 September, their mission was postponed less than a week before launch, due to damaged cables inside the Soyuz descent module. This prompted a delay of almost a month. During this period, the prime crew and their backups—Russian cosmonauts Aleksandr Misurkin and Nikolai Tikhonov and NASA’s Mark Vande Hei—returned to the Star City training center, on the forested outskirts of Moscow, but came back to Baikonur on 7 October. The Soyuz MS-02 spacecraft was encapsulated in its payload fairing on the 11th and integrated aboard the Soyuz-FG booster on the 13th. The 162.4-foot-tall (49.5-meter) booster was transferred horizontally by rail to Baikonur’s Site 31 launch site on 16 October.
Yesterday (Tuesday), the prime and backup crews were formally approved by the State Commission, after which they responded to questions during a press conference. Asked about the delays, Kimbrough noted that it “reminded me of shuttle delays, rather than Soyuz delays,” but that the month-long slip gave himself and his crewmates “a chance to recharge.” That said, Ryzhikov, Borisenko, and Kimbrough spent their time refreshing their training in the Soyuz-MS simulator. His main regret was that it would be “unfortunate for us” to have such a short handover with the incumbent Expedition 49 crew—consisting of Commander Anatoli Ivanishin, NASA’s Kate Rubins, and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Takuya Onishi—and that they would have to “soak up all the knowledge they can send our way.” Present plans call for Soyuz MS-02 to dock at the space station on Friday, with Ivanishin’s crew due to return to Earth just nine days later on 30 October.
Early Wednesday, the prime and backup crews were awakened about 8.5 hours ahead of launch. They showered and were disinfected, after which microbial samples were taken in support of scientific and biomedical experiments aboard the ISS. The men proceeded through the pre-flight traditions of signing their bedroom doors in Baikonur’s Cosmonaut Hotel and receiving blessings from a Russian Orthodox priest, before departing for Site 254 to don their Sokol (“Falcon”) launch and entry suits. With Ryzhikov clad in baseball cap and RUSSIA-emblazoned blue jacket, and Borisenko and Kimbrough wearing dark jackets decorated the Expedition 50 patch, all three greeted the assembled throng of journalists and wellwishers with enthusiasm. At Site 254, they had the opportunity—from behind glass screens—to bid farewell to friends and family. Included among the NASA brass offering good wishes were NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman and the agency’s Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier. Fully suited, Ryzhikov, Borisenko, and Kimbrough were bussed out Site 31, where the mammoth Soyuz-FG booster waited. They arrived at the foot of the launch pad at about 11:30 a.m. local time (1:30 a.m. EDT). According to NASA’s Rob Navias, it was a chilly day at Baikonur, but the sense of excitement was palpable.
Although used routinely for unmanned launches since January 1961, the Site 31 complex has been used relatively rarely for piloted missions—and even more rarely for ISS-bound crews. In fact, its first cosmonaut—Georgi Beregovoi—launched from the pad in October 1968. He was followed by the crews of Soyuz 4, 6, and 8 in 1969, as well as the long-duration Soyuz 9 in mid-1970, after which a number of subsequent Soviet crews also launched toward the Salyut 6 and 7 space stations between February 1979 and July 1984. After the launch of Soyuz T-12, Site 31 was unused by a departing cosmonaut crew for almost three decades. In October 2012, Soyuz TMA-06M crewmen Oleg Novitsky, Yevgeni Tarelkin, and Kevin Ford became the first crew to launch to the ISS from the site. More recently, Soyuz TMA-15M followed suit in November 2014, with Ryzhikov, Borisenko, and Kimbrough becoming the 18th overall team of humans to depart Site 31.
The crew ascended the pad’s elevator and were inserted into their couches aboard the Soyuz MS-02 spacecraft. Ryzhikov assumed the central seat, commanding today’s launch into space, with Borisenko in the left-side “Flight Engineer-1” position and Kimbrough in the right-side “Flight Engineer-2” position. It has become customary for Soyuz crews to carry a stuffed toy—usually provided by one of their children—into orbit, both as a nod to loved ones and also as a “gravity indicator,” since it would begin to float when the spacecraft achieved orbit. Since the crew would be securely strapped into their seats throughout the ascent phase, the toy would thus provide their first obvious indication of the onset of weightlessness.
According to Borisenko, this crew’s children are all fully grown, and it therefore seemed inappropriate to carry a stuffed toy. However, he told the assembled media at the State Commission meeting that he would carry a small toy dragon with him, since he was born in 1964, the most recent occurrence of China’s Year of the Dragon. Borisenko is also carrying with him a copy of the book “Lunar Rainbow,” by the Soviet-era science fiction author Sergei Pavlov, which he says provided part of his inspiration to become a cosmonaut. Kimbrough is carrying mementoes from various organizations across the United States, whilst Ryzhikov recently announced that he is taking along a small model of Russia’s new “Federatsiya” (“Federation”) piloted spacecraft, which is expected to eventually replace the Soyuz. “Our zero-g indicator will be a toy of the new-generation spacecraft,” Ryzhikov told CollectSpace.com in a recent interview, “because the [Soyuz]-MS includes equipment that will be used in the new craft.”
In addition to a highly refined form of rocket-grade kerosene, known as “RP-1,” the Soyuz-FG booster carries liquid oxygen, which was continuously topped-off until close to T-0. This ensured that boiled-off cryogens were kept replenished and maintained at “Flight Ready” levels. In the final 15 minutes, the Launch Abort System (LAS) was armed and transferred to Automatic Mode and Ryzhikov, Borisenko, and Kimbrough were instructed to close their space suit visors.
At T-5 minutes, Ryzhikov’s controls were activated and internal avionics aboard Soyuz MS-02 were spooled-up to monitor booster systems throughout ascent. Inside the control bunker, the “launch key”—an actual, physical key—was inserted to enable the Soyuz-FG’s ordnance. Propellant tanks were pressurized and the rocket was transferred from ground support utilities to internal power, with the two umbilical towers retracting away from the vehicle. Ten seconds before liftoff, the turbopumps of the RD-108 first-stage engine and the RD-107 engines of the four tapering, strap-on boosters attained full speed. Five seconds later, the engines themselves ignited, ramping up to full power, before Site 31’s fueling tower retracted and Soyuz MS-02 roared into the Baikonur sky.
With the four tapering boosters serving as the Soyuz-FG’s first stage, and the core providing the second stage, a total of five engines lifted the 672,000-pound (305,000 kg) booster away from launch pad and onto its journey to the space station. One minute and 58 seconds later, the four strap-on boosters—each of which measures 64 feet (19.6 meters) in length—were exhausted and jettisoned from the stack. By this point, they were already traveling in excess of 1,100 mph (1,770 km/h). Meanwhile, the core RD-108 engine continued the push uphill, kicking off second-stage flight, until it too burned out at four minutes and 43 seconds into ascent. At the point of RD-108 shutdown, the Soyuz-FG and its human cargo had reached an altitude of 105.6 miles (170 km).
Next came the turn of the third stage, which executed a so-called “Hot Stage” burn, igniting its single RD-0110 engine whilst still attached to the core. A few seconds later, the 89-foot-tall (27.1-meter) core stage was jettisoned. The third stage pushed Ryzhikov, Borisenko, and Kimbrough to a velocity in excess of 13,420 mph (21,600 km/h) and continued to burn for four minutes, until it shut down at eight minutes and 45 seconds into the flight. By the time of RD-0110 cutoff and the separation of the 22-foot-long (6.7-meter) third stage, Soyuz MS-02 had attained a preliminary orbit with an apogee of 143 miles (230 km) and a perigee of 118 miles (190 km), inclined 51.66 degrees to the equator.
Although both Borisenko and Kimbrough are embarking on their second career space missions—the former having conducted a 164-day increment to the ISS in April-September 2011, the latter having flown a shuttle mission, way back in November 2008—today’s launch marked the first voyage of Ryzhikov. A cosmonaut since October 2006, he has waited exactly a full decade to the month for his first mission and becomes the 547th human to enter space, since Yuri Gagarin’s pioneering voyage in April 1961. Immediately after orbital insertion, the crew members set to work deploying Soyuz MS-02’s electricity-generating solar arrays and the upgraded Kurs-NA (“Course”) hardware, which will guide them toward a rendezvous and docking at the ISS on Friday.
At present, Ryzhikov, Borisenko, and Kimbrough are due to dock at the Poisk module at 5:59 a.m. EDT on Friday. Following customary pressurization and leak checks, the hatches will be opened and the new arrivals will be greeted by the incumbent Expedition 49 crew of Ivanishin, Rubins, and Onishi, who are today entering their 106th day in orbit. However, there will be little time to acclimatize to their new surroundings, for Orbital ATK’s OA-5 Cygnus cargo ship is en-route to the station, targeted to arrive on Sunday morning. And a week after that, on 30 October, Ivanishin, Rubins, and Onishi will board their Soyuz MS-01 spacecraft and return to Earth, leaving Kimbrough as the new ISS skipper, leading Expedition 50 through early 2017. His crew will be increased to its full, six-person strength in mid-November, when Soyuz MS-03 launches with Russian cosmonaut Oleg Novitsky, Frenchman Thomas Pesquet, and former NASA Chief Astronaut Peggy Whitson.